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Courbet and the Modern Landscape

“ … an unusual truce between what might be called the purist and populist approaches to art exhibitions.”— Roberta Smith, New York Times, October 13, 2006

In the fall of 2006, the Walters Art Museum presented its version of an exhibition of Courbet’s landscapes, organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum. French artist, Gustave Courbet, the radical painter whose example would inspire the painterly experiments of the next generation of impressionists and beyond, is arguably one of the most original painters of the 19th century.

“… an amazing and beautiful show at the Walters Art Museum, where the magnificence of the artist’s vision is complemented by a magical exhibition design.” – Glen McNatt, Baltimore Sun, October 15, 2006

In an unprecedented, experimental installation, the Walters mounted a version of the Getty show that sought to showcase, not an art-history lesson in 19th-century French painting, but the physical and emotional power of the art of one of the greatest painters of the early modern period. Organizing Walters curator, Eik Kahng, took her cue from Johns Hopkins University art critic, Michael Fried, whose  text on Courbet commented upon the artist’s interest in painting sound, whether the burbling of a river, or the wind in the trees. She approached composition professors at the Peabody Institute,  and invited students to compose original, ambient music inspired by Courbet’s paintings.

spring images winter images summer images

Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in partnership with the Walters and with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this was the first international loan exhibition to focus exclusively on the landscape paintings of Gustave Courbet (1819-77). Courbet's landscape paintings of the 1860s defined the essential artistic issues that would concern the next generation of avant-garde painters (who would be called the impressionists), changing the course of painting for the next 100 years. Despite its enormous significance, Courbet's landscape painting received surprisingly little consideration in exhibition form.

This show focused on 37 landscape paintings, which demonstrated how Courbet was a radical innovator both in the motifs he chose to paint and in the dramatic brushwork of his paintings. The exhibition opened at the Getty Museum, February 21-May 14, 2006, and traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 18-Sept. 10, 2006, before coming to the Walters.

Courbet and the Modern Landscape was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Walters Art Museum. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. The Walters venue was presented by The Women's Committee of the Walters Art Museum with additional support provided by Mr. and Mrs. Austin H. George.

“Wonderfully innovative presentation. I’m pleased to see the Walters adopt a more unconventional take. It’s very interesting to see the works in this context, and the music heightened the experience. I especially loved the winter lighting. The snow looks almost like it’s glowing. Beautiful exhibit! This isn’t the staid, dull Walters Gallery any more. Continue updating, please.”

–A Walters Visitor

Divided into four, seasonally themed sections, with walls devoid of the usual label copy, the paintings were thus experienced by visitors without the crutch of words. A free, handheld color-illustrated brochure was made available instead. Wall colors, chosen for their psychological effect and a subtle lighting effect, (overseen by Baltimore lighting designer, Paul Deeb), functioned, along with the music, as layers of interpretation meant to enhance and prolong visitors’ attention to the paintings. Thelighting effect, meant to simulate the changing intensity of light as experienced outdoors, showcased the degree to which Courbet’s landscapes subtly altered in mood, depending on the intensity of the light in the galleries. Each section waslit slightly differently, the most dramatic being Winter, in which pin-point lighting framed the landscapes, making the white paint seem to glisten, while the blue color of the walls seemed to drop the temperature of the room a degree or two.

“The music in the Courbet exhibit was transcendent.” – A Walters Visitor

Interestingly, the Winter section was both the object of rapturous enthusiasm and dire disapproval among visitors, as attested by remarks recorded in the exhibition commentary book. As time progressed, visitor responses to the installation became increasingly vehement. Those that disliked the unorthodox presentation absolutely hated it.

“Dear Walters, The Courbet show is spectacular! Why did you put in the corny impossible lighting in “winter”? No way to see the paintings as they really are? Maybe? Who knows? Music is penetrating and annoyingly present. I wish you had let these gorgeous paintings speak for themselves.” – A Walters Visitor

The critical reviews were equally divided, with the New York Times praising the installation for its daring, a daring the artist himself would have commended (The show “emphasizes Courbet’s radicalism while matching his showmanship with some of its own. The combination … is surprisingly effective,” wrote critic Roberta Smith), and the Washington Post expressing nothing but horror at what they considered the curator’s egotistical interference with the art through the unnecessary imposition of a lighting effect and music.

The Walters hired Randi Korn & Associates to conduct summative research on the effectiveness of the Walters installation.